Dr Christine O'Malley
I really enjoyed the IMO AGM this year. It’s funny, because I went with very low expectations. Since leaving work, I feel rather irrelevant. And yet my views are as fiercely held as ever.
But the AGM was back to ‘our’ hotel, Hotel Europe in Killarney. The location is stunning. Simply looking across the lake at mountains is good for the soul. Add in great food and lovely staff and it’s the place to be. It would be a shame to miss it.
Annie (stage manager) booked in immediately – it’s her favourite hotel.
On the way down, I heard the soothing, measured tones of Peadar Gilligan (incoming President) on the news. It’s an IMO tradition.
Shortly after we arrived, I got a message from The Irish Times. They’re printing my article the next day! It’s a light-hearted look at trolleys. (Yes, seriously.)
I feel better. Then I start to worry. What will the emergency medicine crowd think of my article? I nab Peadar – he likes it. Whew!
I have another prop with me: The answer to a parliamentary question, which confirms that the HSE have no data (their emphasis) on trolley patients, as regards age or illness. It’s because HIPE coding is not done unless the patient physically moves to a ward. How can the HSE solve the trolley problem if they know nothing about the patients?
Peadar suggests I use it during the afternoon motions session.
By now, quite a crowd has gathered, including a healthy turn-out of articulate NCHDs. It’s great to catch up with old friends, mostly people I meet only at the AGM. Later, the hall is packed for the panel discussion on Sláintecare.
The weather was not welcoming in Killarney at first. The mountains were greyed out by the rain. Storm winds herded chairs and tables along the terrace as Matt (psychiatrist, musician and MC extraordinaire) gave a talk on depression. Was nature in sympathy?
But the IMO always brings the sunshine.
I skipped the talk on GDPR and sat outside, watching the sun chase the last clouds from the mountain. Strangely beautiful music came from a balcony overhead. I looked up and saw Larry (GP and piano player) also listening. Roisin Dubh he called down to me. So we sang a few lines “A Roisin, na biodh bron ort…” as Ina (Chair of the Public Health Doctors) played the uileann pipes. Future committee meetings may be very interesting.
Maybe because of the setting, I fell into a number of remarkable and highly personal conversations with people I don’t know very well. It reminded me that we can never guess what troubles are going on in the homes and lives of colleagues.
Appropriately, there was a session on burn-out among doctors. The rates are astonishingly high. That was highlighted at the consultant national meeting, when two doctors referred, almost casually, to their experience of severe burn-out and how poorly their employers dealt with it.
As I attended debate sessions and listened to the life of a coroner, Annie was having her own AGM. There were long conversations with Niamh (artistic director) about funding for the arts in Wales and Ireland and discussions on plays with Aoife (theatre director) as well as getting advice from Matt (superhero) on handling an audience.
Meanwhile, Stephen Donnelly (FF health spokesperson) talked with Asam (surgeon and health realist) and me about medical employment and the peculiarity of labelling graduates in a negative manner as ‘non-consultant’. It’s interesting to get such a different perspective.
Later I met Minister for Health Simon Harris. He has a remarkable memory. We took up the conversation where we left off last year – beds and trolleys, of course. He wants to open beds quickly and can’t understand why so many were closed. I said if it’s very clear that beds are coming, morale might start to improve.
We live in hope, and there’s been very little recently.
There were late nights and some drink too. As I queued at the bar behind Frank Murray (RCPI Alcohol Bill advocate) I comforted myself that Joe (IMO Alcohol Bill advocate) told us women over-55 are not the problem as regards alcohol in Ireland. Great!
Very late on the last night, when even the IMO staff were off-duty, I sat with the media pack in the bar. Priscilla (Mindo) decided it was time to set me up on Twitter. The Irish Times and RTÉ were shaking wise heads, saying “Twitter at 3am – this won’t end well.” But it’s ok, I intend to lurk for a while. So we ordered another round and continued.
Annie and I had a weekend of fun and good company and a varied programme. Thanks to team IMO for a great AGM. And a big thank you to the kids who campaigned relentlessly to bring us all back to Hotel Europe.
During the Great Snow, I went through the snippets and articles of medical interest sitting on my kitchen table. Some are from the Medical Independent; others from newspapers. The best get stuck under fridge magnets, along with my favourite Mindo cartoons.
Let’s start with a lawyer who said the relationship between doctor and patient is “not merely a legal relationship, but one based on trust” and that a system of medical regulation that undermines trust “has got to be wrong”. Yes, yes, yes. It’s lovely to have new voices speaking up for what we do.
It ties-in nicely with a book review on unconventional treatments, which reminds the GP writer: “Never underestimate the power of the doctor themselves as the therapeutic agent.” I think modern hospitals ignore this part of patient care, as if it doesn’t matter.
The thing is, it’s not just GPs who are therapeutic agents. I didn’t know studies have shown “the biggest single factor that influences how happy a patient is after a knee replacement is how nice the doctor is to the patient”. Of all hospital specialties, orthopaedic surgery looks purely technical. Clearly, it’s not.
I find I learn a lot about our health system from individual patient experience, but consultant colleagues warn me: “That’s just anecdote, not evidence.” I’d have been at home at the meeting of medical story-telling in Galway. Yes, stories help “make sense of medicine’s complexities and uncertainties” and help maintain “a sense of humanity and what’s important”. Evidence-based practice has its place, but don’t leave people out.
An item that will live on my fridge door, for a while, is from the RCSI Millin Meeting. A UK Professor said specialism may be causing harm. It “breaks down continuity of care” and leads to endless referrals; professionals are reticent to make decisions outside their specialty, which leads to “paralysis in the system”.
I didn’t think I’d see that said in my professional lifetime, and by a surgeon. It’s the story of my life as a consultant, especially in recent years. A hospital admission used to be a one-stop shop to get everything sorted quickly for a patient. Now it’s just the prelude to months of clinics and scans and scopes.
The Professor also said that specialism leads to “medical tribalism” and specialists dominating guidelines. I hope that’s not what lies behind the loud campaign to “streamline” trauma services, which is covered in several newspaper cuttings.
Based on the horrors of reconfiguration in the Mid-West, here’s what will happen.
The new trauma centres will be overloaded with patients and trolleys; they’ll wonder what went wrong, how could the data lie? The HSE won’t believe them and will claim there are only two extra admissions per night. Referring hospitals will discover that patient transfers require complex decision-making and are very time-consuming. The ambulance service will fall further behind on their HIQA targets.
Please, please, do it in Dublin first. There’s some slight chance the problems will be noticed before it’s imposed on all of us.
If ‘reconfiguring’ in Dublin causes problems, maybe The Irish Times and Sunday Business Post might notice that the extreme trolley crisis in the Mid-West was caused by reconfiguration. It might dawn on them that “reconfiguring” services in Portlaoise will severely damage all nearby hospitals.
Meanwhile, an Irish Times editorial calls for trauma care on fewer sites, just like cancer services were “centralised in eight sites” a decade ago. But that’s not what really happened: as public services closed, private centres opened. The then Minister for Health Mary Harney even cut the ribbon on one such unit.
A Sunday Business Post article says the Government has refused to centralise services, “which would help reduce running costs”. I am not aware of any evidence that cost will be reduced.
If this comes as a surprise, look at the private hospitals — they have remarkably small staff numbers. They don’t talk about ‘economies of scale’, and for good reason. An acute hospital is not a manufacturing plant churning out pins, in the Adam Smith model, or complex items, such as cars. Acute care is more like crash repairs. It’s messy, with highly-individualised, bespoke solutions for each patient.
In economic terms, the true problem is that large hospitals have higher fixed costs than smaller units. That makes every case expensive, even the simple ones.
“I think sometimes we take an engineering analysis to the health system”, says Dr Mike Ryan from the World Health Organisation, when actually, health is “very organic”.
My final quote is from business guru Peter Drucker: “Large healthcare institutions may be the most complex organisations in human history” and “even small healthcare institutions are complex, barely-manageable places”.
I agree. That’s another one for my fridge.
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